Holiday Traditions

By Ari Case

A beautiful light tree in Spain. Photo courtesy: Señora Aragon.

For many in America, December means buying presents and trees, watching cozy movies, sipping warm cocoa and hanging stockings on the mantle. Even in other countries, these traditions are observed. For many more, though, other traditions or different holidays entirely are the focus of the season.

At GS, some students and teachers celebrate other traditions.

Senior Gabriel Prikoszovich is here for an exchange program and shared some of his holiday traditions.

“In Austria, we have pretty big Christmas markets,” Prikoszovich said. “Normally there’s some [place] to ice skate, [and] you buy souvenirs there. And then [there are] some dishes like caramelized almonds and some cookies. There [are] some stands [of] people who live there.”

One difference he noted was that in Austria, they open presents on the 24th rather than Christmas Day. The food is different as well, with fish being the main course.  

“My family has a tradition where we eat a piece of garlic, a piece of apple, an almond and combine it with honey because it symbolizes wealth, health and family,” he explained.

Though there are a few differences for Christmas, Prikoszovich explained that New Year’s celebrations are nearly identical. The only thing he could think of is that the drinking age is lower in Austria.

Another transfer student, senior Aleksander Savic, shared his holiday experiences from Serbia.

The most obvious difference is the reversal of Christmas and New Year’s traditions.

“We get presents on New Year’s and then our Christmas is on the seventh of January,” Savic explained. “And Christmas is [to] be with your family [and] have a big dinner. [It’s] usually a big family time.”

Similar to several other traditions, he shared that on Christmas families eat a round cake with a coin hidden inside. Whoever finds the coin in their slice is said to be lucky for the next year.

A holiday market in Spain, similar to those in Austria and France. Photo courtesy: Señora Aragon.

Many might assume that the holiday season in South Africa is vastly different from American customs, but that’s not always the case.

“It’s the same as here, except we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving,” sophomore Kutlo Makgale said.

Makgale is from Botswana, a country in Southern Africa, and she moved to America a few months ago. For Christmas, the only difference is that they have a longer break from school.

“We got together, the whole family from the oldest to the youngest—all of us—because we rarely saw each other all year long,” she said. “We’d get there on the holidays and just cook and have fun.”

For New Year’s, she talked about similar celebrations to those in America, with dancing at the end of the day.

“Some people from the community would get together and perform traditional songs and [do] some dances,” she said.

Most of the traditions this time of year are very similar in Botswana, but Makgale said some of the American customs seem peculiar.

“I don’t [understand] sitting on Santa’s lap,” she said. “I mean, you don’t know him. [Just] deciding ‘Oh my God! I want to see Santa,’ [is] weird.”

Of all the Christmas traditions, mall Santas are certainly one of the most American.

Some students will be celebrating for the eight nights of Hanukkah, lighting candles of a menorah, receiving gelt and playing dreidel. Hanukkah is a traditional Jewish holiday commemorating the recovery of Jerusalem and the miracle of the holy light. The blessed oil of the candelabra that burned for eight days—only expected to last for one night—is a well-known legend that many still celebrate today. Each day, scripture is read and hymns are sung.

In addition to religious traditions, there are several others. Some traditional foods like latkes and sufganiyot—potato pancakes and doughnuts—are eaten. Gelt—money, chocolate coins and small gifts—are given to children each night. All of the time, though, is spent with family.

Any student who wishes to learn about other cultures can take a French or Spanish class, which typically cover bits of holiday tradition from their respective countries.

In French classes, students can learn plenty about traditions like placing shoes under the chimney. Most children in France do this the night before the sixth of December—Saint Nicolas Day.

While they sleep, Saint Nicolas will put candy into the shoes of the good children, and then Père Fouettard—Father Whip—will drop coal in those of the bad children. Sometimes, he even whips naughty kids with his bag of sticks.

This tradition stems from an old legend about one of Saint Nicolas’ miracles that can still be found in French children’s books today.

A French children’s book depicting the legend of Saint Nicolas. Photo courtesy: Madame Grace.

“It really opens up the holiday season in France,” French teacher Madame Stephanie Grace said.

Throughout the holiday season, there are many large holiday markets there. The cultural importance of markets in France leads to them being everywhere, all the time. There are many stands with sweet treats, delicious food and small gifts to buy for friends and family. Markets are not only a place to shop, but also a social gathering place.

Some things that could be bought at a market are les santons and holiday cards.

Les Santons are small figurines of traditional characters and professions that are crafted by hand in the Provence region of France. They are used in household nativity scenes around the holidays and can be found in Provençal homes year-round.

Rather than sending cards out in December, in France they are typically sent out any time before the end of January. Instead of specific Christmas cards, they are cards to wish luck and prosperity for the new year.

“It’s more to wish them a prosperous and healthy new year,” Madame Grace said.

Other than timing, they’re fairly similar in sentiment to American cards.

The night before Christmas, French families have a big dinner together. It’s a traditional meal that sometimes includes delicacies like oysters.

“It’s a late dinner because they eat [and] then head to midnight mass together,” Grace said. “So, it’s a good way to bring in the season.”

After Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, French families celebrate Three Kings Day on January 6. This is a time to feast with family and enjoy a King Cake. Inside the cake, there will be a small ceramic toy. Whoever gets it in their slice is granted luck for the year and is responsible for bringing the cake next year.

In Spain, they also celebrate Three Kings Day, also known as the Epiphany, with a cake, but the tradition is split apart. The cake is called a Roscón de Rayes cake, and it has dried fruit. There is both a bean and a small figurine of a baby inside. Whichever unlucky person finds the bean must bring the cake next year, and the luck is bestowed upon whoever finds the baby. Also on that day, children leave out shoes for treats like the French do on December 6.

For New Year’s in Spain, they eat 12 grapes before the clock strikes midnight for prosperity in each month of the upcoming year. There are fireworks and parties, too.

In Peru, families create dolls or scarecrows called muñecos that resemble a person and place them outside their homes. They are often modeled after political figures or family members. At midnight, on New Year’s Eve, with fireworks or just fire, each muñeco is burned away.

A depiction of Santa Claus burns on New Year’s. Photo courtesy: Señora Aragon.

“It represents, sort of, out with the old and in with the new,” Spanish teacher Señora Emily Aragon explained.

For many countries, the Christmas season isn’t during a cold snowy winter. In Peru, though it’s warm, they still drink hot chocolate. In some areas, there are sorts of holiday soup kitchens—called chocolotadas—where hot cocoa and warm food are given out to the community.

“Basically, they give hot chocolate and food to [less] fortunate families and they give a little gift,” Señora Aragon said. “So, when you hear chocolatada, in Peru that’s a big tradition around Christmas time.”

A street in Spain decorated for the holidays. Photo courtesy: Señora Aragon.

Another tradition of Spanish-speaking countries is that of Las Posadas, which is most prominent in Mexico. For nine nights before Christmas, there is a small procession of community members acting as Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus followed by many children in angel or demon costumes. They parade through the town asking for shelter until they reach the designated house, where everyone enters and feasts.

“It’s a theatrical reenactment of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to sleep in Bethlehem,” Aragon said.

Speaking of the nights before Christmas, in Iceland children are visited by the 13 Yule Lads. Each night, a different one of the brothers visits each child and either gives them a gift or—if they were naughty—a rotten potato. Traditionally, these are given within shoes placed on the windowsill the night before.

Icelandic children also contend with the Christmas Cat, Jólakötturinn. He prowls around on Christmas Eve and allegedly steals gifts from, or in some stories devours, anyone who isn’t wearing at least one piece of new clothing. No one can quite trace the origins of this particular holiday creature, but it still convinces many children to wear the socks they begrudgingly got the night before.

One tradition that may be more familiar to people in Greensburg is that of the Christmas pickle. This ritual of hiding a pickle ornament in the tree for someone to find the next morning allegedly comes from Germany. Researchers have found, however, that it most likely started right here in the US at Woolworth’s in the 1880s. Almost no one in Germany has even heard of the tradition. Historians suspect that they created the tale as a way to sell more glass ornaments of fruits and vegetables imported from Germany at the time.

There are two main legends behind the commercial myth. The first tells of a soldier who had been captured and was near death. He pleaded with a guard asking for just a pickle, which saved him and gave him the strength to continue living by the grace of God.

The other tale tells of two boys who were captured and killed by an innkeeper. The innkeeper then stuffed their bodies in pickle barrels. Later, St. Nicholas was passing through and found the bodies. He used his magic to create a miracle, bringing them back to life. This has parallels to the French tale of Saint Nicolas, meaning it likely took inspiration from the classic tale.

French cookies decorated like Saint Nicolas. Photo courtesy: Madame Grace.

Despite alleged German origins, many in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area continue this tradition, partially due to the city’s ties to Heinz pickles. Ornaments with Heinz pickles are sold around the city, and a large balloon was made as well.

Wholly unrelated to pickles, another food-centric tradition is the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Many years ago, Italian American families solidified the tradition in the US. At the time, seafood was the most available resource for many people in Italy, and immigrant families brought this cooking with them.

On Christmas Eve, a seven-course meal of seafood is served family-style around the table. At least one of the courses will involve a whole cooked fish, which symbolizes abundance—and is also very delicious. The tradition itself is not religious, but there are seven courses because of the number’s importance in the Bible.

Though not centered on fish, another seaworthy tradition is the decoration of Christmas boats in Greece. The climate in Greece rarely had trees, mostly brush, and many families had sea-faring roots. Families join and decorate a boat, often a model for those who don’t own a real one, rather than a tree. Some legends say that the lights on the models would bring light to the men who were out at sea, although it isn’t very clear what the direct origins were.

A holiday ice rink in Spain. Photo courtesy: Señora Aragon.

Even if your holiday season is just a few extra days off school, enjoy the time with friends and family by making memories and having fun.

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